Let it Beard is a bewildering album and a cryptic, koan-like sendoff from three of indie rock’s elder statesmen. Its 26 tracks (count ‘em) read, superficially, like a retrospective of singer Robert Pollard’s pre-and post-Guided By Voices work, combining elements of their famous 4-track haze with more lucid fidelities, a few acoustic numbers, and guest appearances by J Mascis and Colin Newman on this impressive, occasionally brilliant double LP.
All things considered, it feels like a fitting swan song for Pollard, Chris Slusarenko (GBV), and John Moen (The Decemberists, Perhapst). Guided By Voices began as the definitive lo-fi project; during studio sessions, Pollard repeatedly discarded swaths of studio tracks in favor of his own 4-tracked versions. In their earlier years, GBV gained a notoriously devoted following after a series of solid, slow-burning releases. But elements of a slicker pop sensibility crept in for two albums on TVT, thanks in part to the instrumental talents of glam-rockers Cobra Verde on one-third of Mag Earwhig. Since then, it’s been a common GBV/Pollard trick to juxtapose wildly different musical ideas of whatever fidelity and then focus the song on either resolving or simply embellishing the tension. Let It Beard’s first track, “Blind 20-20,” phases into properly-EQ’d focus for a blistering intro and then abruptly veers into a mid-tempo ballad for the second half of the song. Next, the minute-long “Juggernaut vs. Monolith” churns along to some heavy riffage and the lines, “Not one thing stands in your way/ Not one thing brings you down.”
If, by that description, the first two tracks sound a bit disjointed and not terribly inviting, you wouldn’t be alone. Several reviewers with a quicker draw than myself have mentioned the album feels backloaded and sags under its own double-disc weight. They’re right, but there’s a lot to like here. And besides, when putting together the valediction of one of the most prolific lo-fi pop artists of the past 20+ years, brevity just shouldn’t be part of the equation.
“Tourist UFO,” the first pop song on Let It Beard, pulses with a capacious, ambiguous chord progression à la Bee Thousand, a distorted haze and a guitar solo channeling the spirit of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and other canonical heavyweights. Those salient moments of an odd melodic familiarity or lyrical turn are part of what makes Boston Spaceships so appealing. Pollard creates odd landscapes within his songs, and a rock ‘n’ roll trope here or there is a way of creating tension between the song itself and the reality of three dudes rocking the fuck out.
David Malitz of The Washington Post once suggested that Pollard and his various musical projects were a lot like The Grateful Dead, “for people who like Miller Lite instead of acid.” That pretty much holds true on Let It Beard, too. You can hear it in the Roger Daltrey vocal theatrics on “A Hair on Every Square Inch of the House” or Bowian lyrical turns on “Red Bodies.” In fact, the title track fades out to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” riff.
Arena-rock referents aside, Pollard still hasn’t lost his knack for crafting oddball, irreverently rocking songs. “Make a Record for Lo-Life” brings a psychological dimension to the vicissitudes of recording music and “Christmas Girl” is a raucous 6/8 paean to lovers past. The mostly acoustic “No Steamboats” kicks off the excellent final three tracks, with Pollard making the simplest nonsensical lyrics (“We’re clinging to the raft/ We know that/ We know where it’s at/ Where only the zeroes remain/ There’ll be no more refrains/ We know what goes down”) very affecting. The sprawling, five-and-a-half minute closer “Inspiration Point” follows the ambiguously creepy “You in My Prayer,” finishing the album with just as many abrupt stylistic shifts as it began with, avoiding the self-congratulatory affectations of capping a career’s worth of work by driving headlong and unceasingly to the center of the record. It’s how they would have wanted to go.
However, those who accuse Pollard of not spending enough time separating his good songs from his not-so-good songs will probably still find something to complain about: lyrically, the album treads the line between disarmingly relatable and plain awkward, slipping occasionally, and “Speed Bumps” sounds like a song Rivers Cuomo threw away. And there’s no good reason to treat Let It Beard as a start-to-finish unified album — it’s very long and the songs don’t really relate to one another, despite the band’s description as “a subconscious concept album about the sorry state of rock n’ roll.” But Let It Beard certainly seems like a strong statement about something: it took six months to record and produce, an evident deceleration in the Spaceships’ otherwise manically-released discography. Maybe Pollard just wanted to take things a bit slower for what may be the last Spaceships album. But if they’re serious about Let it Beard as a double-disc referendum on the state of rock, the message they’re trying to send is anything but serious.
Boston Spaceships approach lo-fi music as the vernacularization of rock ‘n’ roll. As the antithesis of the rock god exploding wild arpeggiations in complete control. They remind me of the times when you can’t control the noise — the kid plugging in his shitty, feedback-prone Squier or jamming out in a basement to Stones tunes on an overheated PA. Hooks crest out of the white noise, some kid (or a seasoned frontman north of 50) wraps his hand around the mic stand to part the rad sea, to manhandle a melody out high above the buzz: “Do you wanna be/ Do you wanna be alright?”